November 18, 2005

What's architecture got to do with it?

Our standard of living and quality of life depend on the way in which ecosystems operate. This may be weakly apparent in developed, information-industry countries because in these countries we've outsourced most of our ecological dependence to other parts of the earth. Developed countries are as dependent on ecosystems for their standards of living as any country. Compare the ecological footprint (the amount of land required to supply the standard of living) of a person in the US to a person in any poorer country.

This is nothing new to most readers: our infrastructure and the conventional way we've procured it are in trouble because we have ecological degradation underway that is undermining our economy and security. The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) "was carried out between 2001 and 2005 to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and to establish the scientific basis for actions needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems and their contributions to human well-being." If you want to familiarize yourself with the situation, the MA is a good outline that explains opportunities for different sectors of the economy.

Architects have a great opportunity to return to relevancy in the building industry. The spatial relationships of home and work, and the choice of technology in how these places are constructed, are key determinants of our collective impact on ecosystems. Architects have potential as major decision-makers because historically they were once humanists who understood technology and its effects on social spaces. Architects today are not major decision-makers guiding the development of our infrastructure because they have marginalized themselves to become stylists, sub-consultants, and branding designers for buildings.

The timeframe is pertinent to young architects starting their professional life. We will replace and rebuild 1/3 to 1/2 of our infrastructure in the next 50 years. The buildings, transportation systems, and places we build in the coming years will be the infrastructure for our children and grandchildren's everyday life. They will unfortunately live in a world more unstable and vulnerable to disaster than ours today.

We've got to get our carbon dioxide emissions cut down, reduce our demand for primary materials, and transition to mostly renewable sources of primary energy supply. (The references and discussion on this will come in future posts.) Buildings are big energy guzzlers. It's commonly quoted that buildings account for the consumption of about 40% of our primary energy. This is a greater share than any other segment of our infrastructure. [See "Architects Pollute" article in Metropolis] For architects, this means that buildings have to become quite more energy efficient than they are now. They've also got to become fundamentally better places for people, so we can keep using their core parts longer instead of tearing them down.

To make most new buildings by these new standards (that is, 1. use much less energy, 2. fundamentally better places for people) the architectural profession must change, and the building industry must change. The professional status quo will continue producing status quo buildings. Quoting from the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (MA): "The challenge of reversing the degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing demands for their services can be partially met under some scenarios that the MA has considered, but these involve significant changes in policies, institutions, and practices that are not currently under way." The posts on this blog lay out significant changes for the architectural profession that can partially mitigate the degradation of the landscape, and reclaim a relevant role in the building industry for architects. Since I'm only familiar with architecture, other roles in the building industry are discussed only with regard to contractual relationships between building professionals.

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